Prayer for the Conversion of our Nation

Prayer for the Conversion of our Nation

Pentecost 2016

 

Almighty Father,

as we glory in the victory of your ascended Son

and await our anointing in the Spirit’s power,

hear our prayer for this town and borough, this city and nation.

Convert us and many to a renewed and deepening faith each day;

turn us from hatred to love, from resentment to forgiveness,

from self-concern to patient loving-kindness.

 

Give us eyes to see the struggles of the sick and infirm;

ears to hear the crying of the young and the bewildered;

give us hands to help the stranger, the overburdened,

the homeless, and the helpless.

 

Let the gathered voices of this land combine to sing your praise,

announce your justice and proclaim your Kingdom,

that it may come among us, and your will be done in many lives

on this fragile earth as in your eternal heaven.

 

We make this prayer in Jesus’ name,

who is alive and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God now and for ever.

 

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Homily for Good Shepherd Sunday 2016

Homily 2016 Year C Easter 4:  Acts 9.36-end;  Revelation 7.9-end;  John 10.22-30

Today is known in the Catholic Church as Good Shepherd Sunday: the gospel reading is always some portion of St John, Chapter 10, ‘I am the good Shepherd’. Here in the Church of England, it is also appropriately designated as Vocations Sunday, giving us an opportunity to reflect not only on the ordained ministries of bishop, priest and deacon, but to pray for a clear sense of calling in all God’s people as we participate in ‘God’s work of bringing truth and healing to the world’ (Daniel Hardy).

The gospel reading opens with Jesus sheltering on a cold winter’s day in the walled eastern portico of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a day of celebration, the anniversary of the renewal and rededication of the Temple 200 years before. A group of priests approaches him, putting a question that has long troubled them, and many others to this day: “Are you the Messiah?”

It is clearly not the first time that they have asked it, and Jesus with some impatience tells them that the question has been answered in many ways already, but they lack the eyes to see it. They have cut themselves adrift from the things of God by their stubbornness of heart: they do not belong to Jesus’ flock, and so cannot interpret the clear signs before them. They are, in fact, like those faithless priests who collaborated two centuries before with the Greek conqueror Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes, believing himself to be God made visible. It was he who forbade Jewish religious practices, turning the Temple into a gymnasium, so that Jewish men endured painful surgery to disguise their circumcision so that they could exercise naked without shame. Antiochus filled the sacred space with pagan statues, even permitting the sacrifice of swine. This damnable apostasy was like another fall of man, and was reversed only by the courage and tenacity of the priest Mattathias and by his son Judas Maccabaeus (‘the Hammer’), who vanquished the vanquisher and drove from the Temple all his detestable enormities, Dedicating it afresh to the faithful worship of God. In choosing this day for Jesus’ showdown with them, St John makes clear how we are to assess ‘the Jews’ of his own day, and how we must judge those of Jesus’ ‘own’ people to whom he came, yet ‘his own received him not’.

This is in fact part of a longer wrangle that began three chapters and several months earlier, on the feast of Tabernacles, when again Jesus and the priests exchange a series of fairly heated disobliging remarks. The priests condemn Jesus for healing a blind man on the sabbath, in clear disobedience of God’s call and command. He in turn dismisses them as being ‘sons of Satan’, those ‘from below’ who are simply unable to see their God at work. Like the faithless kings of the Old Testament, these are the worthless shepherds who grow fat at the expense of the sheep; earlier in John 10, they are the ‘hirelings’ who run away at the first sign of danger.

These are images and arguments with which we are so familiar that they might fail to grab our attention, until perhaps towards the end of today’s passage, when we hear Jesus assuring the priests that his sheep know and are known by him; he leads his own to eternal life; they will never perish or be snatched away, for he and the Father are one. There are (John would have us see) in Jesus’ healing, liberation and sacrificial love, the distinguishing features of God, revealing an uncut umbilical cord that links him in Sonship to the very heart and nucleus of reality itself.

This is surely a comforting thing, especially if we like to think that our following of Jesus will defend us from every ill in this world, and ensure for us every bliss in the next. But as well as comfort, this description of the sheep as faithful and attentive followers of the Shepherd is also a challenge to us to participate in the life of the Shepherd: if, as Pope Francis reminds his clergy, the shepherds need to be close to their people and ‘smell of the sheep’, then we sheep should also imitate and reflect the concerns, priorities and agenda of the Good Shepherd himself. It is by being immersed in his life through prayer, Scripture and the Common Life of our Church communities that we will be inspired and enabled to follow whatever path is opened before us by circumstance and summons.

This model of learning through imitation and incorporation reflects the experience of those who are robed in white with palms of conquest in their hands in today’s reading from the Revelation.  They achieve their victory through the victory of the Lamb, receiving what one Prayer Book Collect calls the “inestimable benefit” of his sacrifice.

In the same way, Saint Peter in his raising of Tabitha from the grave uses the language of Christ’s resurrection to teach that our rising will be made possible through his. He who once said to a little girl, “Talitha, rise up!” now says through Peter, “Tabitha, rise up!” And we all are called (mutatis mutandis and in our own particular back yard) to say the same.

Finding just that particular way through it all is not always the simplest task. It requires an attentiveness to Jesus our Shepherd, and not just the attentiveness of sheep. Another beautiful and compelling image is hidden helpfully in Acts (like a sixpence in a pudding), in the name Dorcas, the Greek version of Tabitha.

St Bede, in his commentary on the Acts, remarks that this name means deer or gazelle. These animals, he tells us, ‘dwell on high mountains and see all who approach, however far away they may be.’ In the same way, we who are Christ’s followers must ‘constantly direct our attention with wisdom to things above,’ while at the same time watch ‘with prudence’ the world unfolding around us. It is in this double attentiveness to God’s graceful call and to the world’s urgent need that our sense of vocation will emerge.

Let us pray that this may be so, and that we may be given grace to follow our Good Shepherd with attentiveness, and to carry out his work with trust in his guidance, that the will of his Father and ours may be done here as in heaven, and that all of creation may know Christ risen, and receive through Christ the victor’s palm.

 

Calling, Calling: Thoughts on Vocations Sunday

One early summer night in 2001, I stood outside and looked to the heavens, putting to God the question that was uppermost in my mind at that time: shall I get married, or be a monk? It was one of the rare occasions in my life when I have had a strong sense of God giving a clear answer to my prayer: “I really don’t care!” God said. “All I want is that you should thrive and be happy. You’re going to have to work out the details yourself. I shall love you, whichever path you take.”

I should perhaps not have been surprised by this. My spiritual director had said a couple of years earlier, before I left theological college, that it was possible that God should have some clear intention for my life, “but it is unlikely that he will reveal it to you like some sort of railway timetable.”

This was not the sort of thing I wanted to hear. I wanted to know that God had nothing else to do but concern himself with my life, placing me at the centre of all things, and making sure that everyone was aware of the immense favour I was doing the Church by making myself available. I had no time for a God who didn’t really care which of two incompatible courses of action I took. It smacked of being asleep on watch and I was not pleased.

This is the first hurdle to clear when thinking about Christian vocation. Yes, it is right to take seriously the sometimes detailed choices that need to be made in a life committed to Christ, but I must avoid the temptation to become wholly self-absorbed by my God, my vocation, my future. The discernment of qualities and the apportioning of roles has always been a matter for the whole church to determine locally, in the diocese: what I think and feel is part of that conversation, but if I can pray for grace to glimpse the broader picture, and make this the burden of my converse with God, I may have a less tormented time while decisions are made, and less of a sense of failure if things don’t go as I had wanted.

Exacerbating the pain and grief of overemphasising my vocation is the unhelpful way in which we have always tended to establish hierarchies of vocational desirability: ever since the apostles argued among themselves as to which of them was the greatest, we have identified high-caste callings and lower-caste callings. For many centuries, we were clear that monks and nuns were at the top of the pyramid: selfless, celibate, poor and obedient, given exclusively to prayer and good works. Then came the ordinary clergy, quite high up the ecclesiastical food chain: although they weren’t as dedicated as the Religious, they were at least a cut above the laity, whose involvement in the ordinary run of birth and copulation and death marked out their unbridgeable separation from those at the sharp and holy end of St Peter’s boat, backs to the people, rapt in prayer.

Although this model didn’t quite survive the Reformation, we have still retained a league table of Church-doing and -being, in which some individuals come to be regarded as greater in worth than others because of the tasks they undertake. We are much more likely to regard as proper vocations the priestly and quasi-priestly roles of worship leading and other busyness about the sanctuary. Those who cut the grass and empty the bins and change the light-bulbs are less likely to agonise over whether they feel themselves to be called to this work. Neither will many have seen the joyfully-irradiated face of one who embraces such a lowly set of responsibilities. Even Churchwardens and members of a Parochial Church Council are likely to be driven by a sense of duty, accepting the historic inevitability of an obligation finally catching up with them.

All of which is a great pity, and a possible cause of the friction that can sometimes exist between the PCC and the Ministry Team: one, a perhaps beleaguered and scantily-resourced body responsible for many unglamorous things; the other, a group usually thought to be close to the vicar and operating on the high-profile stage of worship or in the hushed and beguilingly confidential world of one-to-one encounter.

Many of these difficulties have been intensified by the closed and limiting identification of priesthood with leadership. The problem is not principally that the priesthood has taken on the trappings of secular careers, with jobs advertised in the church press, and interviews at which one has to sell oneself as to a prospective employer, rather than being placed and presented in a parish by a chief pastor.

A far greater problem is that leadership language often conjures images of lone, possibly maverick leaders, fighting and winning against the odds, often with little thought of collaboration or pastoral sensitivity. Such models are inimical to the Church, where leadership is to be shared between clergy and laity, each bringing their own skills and experiences, in diocese as well as parish. This isn’t to establish a consulate of two equally powerful forces: the presidency of the community remains vested in the bishop and the incumbent (‘mine and thine’), but with what we might call a shifting seniority in which many voices and influences come and go, according to the matter in hand and the skills required to deal with them. This process will give rise to many different ministries, by no means all of them priestly or sub-priestly. And many of them will be identified by turning round the telescope so that we begin not with the question, What am I called to? but What needs doing, and am I able to help? From these questions, Parish and Deanery Mission Teams could emerge in response to local need and mission planning. Thus distinctive ministries would remain distinctive, enabling us to see that the one overarching and underpinning qualification in all of this gospel work is the baptism with which we all begin and through which we all belong.

I pray that on this Vocations Sunday, there may be a rediscovery of the primacy of baptism as the seed-bed of calling and the symbol of repentant following, so that, in time, many may be recognised as having been equipped by the Spirit for those ministries by which the Church lives and thrives. May there be drawn from us all a joyful offering of gifts, great and small, plain and remarkable, so that together we might carry out through the Church “God’s work to bring truth and healing to the world” (Daniel Hardy).

‘Summoned to a great drama!’

A homily for  Easter 3 (Year C)

Acts 9.1-6; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19

Anyone who thinks the Bible is boring should be in church today. In each of the readings from Scripture, there unfolds an epic tale of suffering and victory, betrayal and reconciliation, great courage and personal loyalty in the face of persecution and certain death. Yet followers of the leader on whom this tale is centred are not driven from him by danger; neither do they lack confidence in his power to save them. After all that has happened to him in Jerusalem, they know him now as one who has been made new and who is himself renewing all creation.

The triumphant Christ is praised in three stirring hymns in Revelation 5, two of them in the portion set before us (verses 12 and 13), and one coming earlier (verse 11). They are initially sung by a modest choir of just 28 voices, but are quickly reinforced not only by myriads of angels, but eventually by every creature in heaven and on earth, under the earth and in the sea: in short, by the massed voices of all creation, joined together in one great cry: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!

But why is he worthy, and of what? Because by his blood freely sacrificed he ransomed God’s people, he alone is worthy to take God’s gospel-scroll, to open its seals and excite the vigilant into a repentance whose focus and reward is God’s self. This rejection of the world’s self-absorbed fascination with all kinds of power will expose John’s community to the brutality and pain of Roman persecution, signified by the bitterness of the scroll when it is consumed in chapter 10: all who live by the gospel must budget for bitterness and prepare themselves for passion. The Lord has made this clear to us in his general teaching about the relationship between his own experience and that of his followers.[1] He makes the point again when he refers to Paul on the Damascus Road to the persecution of the church as a persecution of “me, Jesus.” Jesus’ suffering is our suffering; our suffering is his. This is why Pascal reminds us that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world and we must not sleep during this time.”[2]

Any commitment to Christ, accepting as it must the suffering of his Cross, will require daily conversion of life and a constant response to God’s call to obedient service.

In my experience, such conversion looks less like the conversion of Saint Paul and rather more like the experience of Saint Peter. Paul’s is a one-off, dramatic event that immediately ‘takes’ and seems to endure without mishap for the rest of his life. Peter, on the other hand, has at least his fair share of ups and downs: lauded one minute as a ‘blessèd’ and inspired disciple; dismissed, the next, as the very devil. He imagines, in the first flush of responding to Christ’s call, that he is prepared to follow him even unto death. But in the all-revealing firelight of Maundy Thursday night, he and we discover how easily such high hopes fall into distressingly ordinary betrayals. And even after the extraordinary events of John 20, and the apostles’ gladness at seeing the risen Lord, Peter returns to Galilee with the apparent intention of going back to his life of fishing. This will not be a fruitful enterprise if it is undertaken without the Lord’s involvement: as one scholar has remarked, ‘it is notable that never in the gospels do the disciples catch a fish without Jesus’ help.’[3] Any ongoing conversion of life for faithful following will similarly require a dogged closeness to Jesus: it is his call to which a disciple is seeking to respond.

Such closeness is mediated at least in part by the companionship and complementarity of other disciples, as Peter and the Beloved Disciple amply illustrate. At the empty tomb, it is Peter who first dares to enter, but it is the Beloved Disciple who reads the scene for what it is and believes in the new life of Jesus Christ. Here on board the boat, although the Beloved Disciple is the one who identifies the character by the Sea of Tiberias as “the Lord”, it is Peter who hitches up his sou’wester[4] and plunges into the dark waters to be reunited with Jesus and nourished by him.

Thus, by grace, it comes about that both Peter the betrayer and Paul the persecutor are called to their own work of proclaiming Christ to the whole brimming netful of Jews and Gentiles, so that all the world might hear and be baptised. To move the metaphor from water to dry land, these are the sheep and lambs of Jesus the Good Shepherd over whom he sets Peter as chief pastor in the threefold commissioning which absolves and restores him after his threefold betrayal. But for the crucified Peter, as for the beheaded Paul, this call to follow Christ is a call to death and sacrifice.

For us also, who have been plunged into the waters of baptism, this is the health warning and promise that lie at the heart of our faith: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if … Oh, but if …[5]

This ‘dying’ may indeed one day be for us a literal death, if not absolutely ‘for the sake of the gospel’ then at least as a consequence of our nation’s historic association with it. It is easily possible that we should one day be caught up in some terrorist carnage in a tube train or shopping centre; possible that we or our children should one day be prey to the sword of the warriors of hatred and death.

It is important that we do not neglect to note the sufferings of Muslims and many others who are not Christian; it is important, too, that we do not forget that the vast majority of current suffering is by no means confined to northern Europe — rather the opposite. But, as many will have remarked on Good Friday, we must in any event be ready for death, firm in the faith that Christ has defeated it, and that it no longer holds any power over us.

Statistically more likely, of course, is that we shall live long and contentedly, and die in our beds full of days and medication. But this does not get us off the hook or excuse us from taking up our cross as our Lord has taken up his. For us, the probable nature of this cross will be to live lives that are marked by the perpetually Lenten elements[6] of ‘fasting, prayer and acts of service’.[7] But this is a cause of neither despair nor tedium for us. Rather, it plunges us into the practice of askesis or training that was used by early Christians to prepare them for martyrdom in violent times, and as a substitute for it in quieter days. It also puts us squarely in the territory with which today’s readings deal: martyrdom for John’s community as it sought to witnesses faithfully to the Lamb; conversion and martyrdom for Paul; and for Peter that laying-down of his life of which he had once glibly spoken. In short, this talk of sacrifice takes us to the heart of our faith.

Timothy Radcliffe, the inspiring Dominican preacher, writer and theologian, says that there is a great temptation for us to package Christianity as if it were a nice harmless spiritual path, a bit like aromatherapy. But this is no way to win converts to the faith, especially from among young people. “We must summon them to a great drama!” he insists. We must tell them about the martyrs, about suffering. “They don’t want soft options: make it tough!”[8]

There is something profoundly exciting in this sort of challenging approach that gives us confidence amid the headlines of decline that we do indeed have a future to share and a faith to commend. Suffering is, naturally, never an end in itself, but always a concomitant of the battle against injustice, perhaps even a necessary instrument in the world’s refashioning. It is certainly a stage in the victory of the Lamb, one that continues to ripple and recapitulate in our own day, always promising and pointing towards final triumph. In the cry of pain, there is already a hint of the victory song; in the bitter cup, there is a foretaste of the final banquet.

There is indeed ‘a great drama’ of profound intensity into which we must call people of every tribe, language and nation to plunge themselves with us. It is a drama requiring in all its actors a deep reliance on grace, a daily conversion of life, and a nourishment at the Lord’s hands so that we may follow faithfully even unto death and sing the praises of him who was slaughtered, and who is now enthroned in glory for ever. Amen.

Alleluia.

[1] Typically in Matthew 25.

[2] Pascal: Pensées, Penguin 1966, 313

[3] Raymond E Brown, SS: The Gospel According to John (XIII – XXI), the Anchor Bible, Doubleday, New York 1970, 1071

[4] Again, we follow the late Fr Brown’s interpretative lead: ibid, 1072

[5] John 12.24

[6] cf Rule of Benedict, 49

[7] Proper preface for Lent: Times and Seasons, 218

[8] Timothy Radcliffe OP: lecture to a conference of school chaplains, Liverpool Hope University, June 2015.

Biblical commentaries consulted included The Book of Revelation by Simon Woodman (SCM, 2008) and Acts by Jaroslav Pelikan (SCM, 2006)